April 9, 2009

Young Love in Black and White

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This week Cornell Cinema will be screening Medicine for Melancholy, a film by relative newcomer Barry Jenkins. An IFC production, the movie follows Micah and Jo — two 20-somethings in San Francisco — after their one night stand (which by the end of the movie is more like a one-night-and-one day-stand). As they day goes on, they explore the city together, debating and discussing issues of race, gender, identity, gentrification and art.
While the film has been described by New York Times critic A.O. Scott and Jenkins himself as a combination of Before Sunrise and Do The Right Thing, it also owes a debt to Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir in its narrative structure and socio-political commentary. In its black-and-white footage and character-driven narrative, the film has some similarities to another recent Cornell Cinema film, In Search Of A Midnight Kiss, though unlike that film it has a political conscience that elevates the film beyond an examination of one couple’s temporary dalliance.
In anticipation of the film’s screening, The Sun spoke with Mr. Jenkins and discuss the artistic and aesthetic choices that went into making the film:

The Sun: You’ve mentioned a love of the French New Wave films, among others. Do you see that influence in your work?
Barry Jenkins: I think because we made the movie so fast and so loose it mimicked the way those films were made, but I don’t think any of my favorite directors showed up in the film. I always say your influences aren’t necessarily your aesthetic. I can’t make movies like Claire Denis, but she’s definitely an influence.
We shot the movie in 15 days in November of 2007, and had it cut by a month later, because we wanted to premiere it at South by Southwest so we did it very quickly. Also, we could only get everyone together for a short period of time so it was all by necessity.
Sun: Having only made short films before Medicine, did you learn anything new from the experience of making a feature-length film?
B.J.: I think just making a film you learn from the experience of making it. It definitely contributes to our overall aesthetic … Since it was so short it was almost like making a short film, just five times in a row. I think the reason it went so well was because of that — it wasn’t an intimidating new process. All the people I worked on the film with went to film school with me so it felt a lot like we were back at school.
Sun: One of the things I liked best about the film was the use of silence — the way you were able to let time go by without any dialogue between the two main characters.
B.J.: I think the actual conceit of the premise is that it’s two people getting to know one another, so at the beginning of the film we knew there was going to be a lot of silence because these two people just aren’t comfortable talking with one another, and then there’s certain spots in the latter part of the film and it’s quiet not because they don’t know one other but because they’re actually considering what the other person said. It’s weird, in most movies it’s just “talk, talk, talk,” but they almost never show people thinking, so we thought it was important because it was two people getting to know one another and exchanging their “world views” that we give them space to think about the things being said.
Sun: The “look” of the film is also pretty gripping. How did you achieve that?
B.J.: The guy who shot the film was also the camera operator — all the composition, lighting, it was all him. And I think it looks great that way. We did a camera test and normally you have either a camera operator or an assistant and we didn’t have either of those but I liked the way it looked so much that I said, “You’re banned from having a camera assistant.” So there’s this intimate connection between what the camera is seeing and what’s going on because there’s just this one guy and the camera and there’s nothing between him and the performers, nothing between him and the world he’s recording. And he got nominated for a cinematography award, this guy with this tiny little camera and a few actors
We shot digital with HD cameras and we had these lenses that we put on the front of the camera so it was like this marriage of old technology and new technology and it was great … We would shoot the first day and then give our [memory] cards to the editor and he would be editing the first day while we were shooting the second day, which was why we were able to get it done so fast.
Sun: Why did you decide to make the film black and white?
B.J.: Part of it was we wanted the movie to be really unique, and it’s called Medicine for Melancholy and we wanted people to tap into that right away. As soon as the movie comes on you get the sense that “something isn’t right here,” and we wanted to paint this picture of San Francisco that was specific to our movie so we decided the best way to do that was to de-saturate the image. We shot the movie in color and then in post went through and pulled the color out shot-by-shot, and as we were doing it we started to notice things the actors were doing and so we started to let a little color back in depending on the movement of the characters … and that [character movement and interaction] became the driver of the aesthetic choice we made.

Medicine for Melancholy will be playing at Cornell Cinema in The Straight tonight at 7:15 p.m., tomorrow at 9:45 p.m. and on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $4 for students and $6.50 for the general public.